‘If you don’t have character, you don’t have anything.’
— Dewayne Cowan
I grew up listening to my father make his character speech, and heard it repeatedly my entire life.
As if he thought I hadn’t been paying attention all these 53 years I’ve known him, he dredged it up again as we shared Sunday lunch at the kitchen counter three weeks ago. I believe it was in reference to today’s politics — a subject that often demands a few remarks on character.
One week later, on Father’s Day, my dad complained he wasn’t feeling well. The next Sunday, he died. On Wednesday of last week, my mother, my two sisters and I gathered with friends and family at Fasken Cemetery, just northeast of Carthage, and said our goodbyes. The warm June morning was made tolerable by a slight breeze. The corn fields surrounding the old country cemetery were probably two weeks away from harvest. His best friend told stories about quail hunting, working cattle and running a feed store together. And when my sister sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” it was almost like hearing angels sing.
Both of his sisters and their husbands were there. All of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in attendance, and all but one of his nieces and nephews made the trip. If I were to describe the people who surrounded us under that funeral awning, I would use the words “salt of the earth.”
The day also called for reflection, and thoughts of the character lecture weighed heavily on me. You see, Dewayne Cowan, my father, lived in a black-and-white world. There was right and there was wrong. And he seldom took a middle-of-the-road stance. Living up to his standards sometimes seemed nearly impossible.
I am the oldest of my sisters, and I hope in their younger days they thanked me every day for breaking all the barriers.
My dad did not want me to:
Wear makeup, especially that “goop on your eyes.”
Go on a date until I was 16.
Wear a bikini. Absolutely not. No way, never.
Stay out past midnight.
Kiss a boy.
Pierce my ears, because after all, why would someone want to put holes in their head?
Of course, I did every single one of these things. Lightning never struck, although my dad’s wrath was made manifest.
Later, I realized he simply didn’t want me to grow up. Doing these things didn’t mean I was lacking in character. I just wasn’t 12 anymore — a fact I’m not sure my father ever acknowledged.
There were other Dad Commandments we argued about.
My dresses were too short.
No, I didn’t need a car.
My perfect row of A’s on my report card were marred by a C in geometry.
No, I couldn’t move into an apartment with my best girlfriend after I graduated from high school.
My decision to be a reporter — which actually came at an early age — was rejected because “that was not the kind of job a woman should have.” He might as well have waved a red flag. From that point on, my destiny in a newsroom was settled.
Now, of course, I know he was just trying to make sure I grew up with some smarts. And possibly with a little more money in my pocket.
In reality, Dad and I only had two big shout-outs in our entire life. Both ended with him saying: “Let’s never do that again.” The second time it took.
It wasn’t until recent years, though, that Dad’s character speech took on new meaning. I don’t know if I could have battled cancer without him and his words by my side. So, when his cancer diagnosis came in 2009 and I knew he wanted to throw in the towel, I pulled out the character card and placed it on the table in front of him. Cancer became our new bond, and a test of all things related to character.
Hours before Dad died, my 4-year-old granddaughter smiled up at me and asked: “Grandma Carol, did your daddy go to heaven?”
I didn’t answer Evie. The words just wouldn’t come, then.
Today, as the realization dawns that my father has left this Earth, I have no doubt of his place in this universe.
After all, he was a man of character.
Carol Stark is editor of The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to her, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Carol Stark on Twitter @carolstark30.